Movie Review ~ French Exit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.

Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald

Director: Azazel Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’d seen Grease 2 several dozen times before I ever knew there was a Grease.  My counting skills aside, to this day I’ll still go to the mat for the cult-favorite silly sequel to one of the biggest movie musical hits of all time.  Yes, I know that you have thoughts about it and want to defend the legacy of Travolta and Newton-John but from my earliest days all I knew was that the leads of Grease 2 were the most beautiful people in the world, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends?  All these years later I’m still a devoted fan of Michelle Pfeiffer (and Maxwell Caulfield appears to be living his best life too) so will always be excited when a new Pfeiffer pfilm comes our way.  The bonus in 2020 was that her newest was generating the type of early buzz that suggested this could be Pfeiffer’s year to return to the awards circuit.

Writing this nearly a week after the Oscars, I think back to when I originally saw French Exit and held out hope that Michelle Pfeiffer might wind up with her first nomination in nearly thirty years.  While the resulting film may not have fallen into line with the titles Pfeiffer was associated with in the early days of her prestigious career, the performance she gave in it pulsated with just the kind of eccentric vibrancy that usually gets noticed by voters.  Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt and adapted by the author himself, this film is out there, to put it mildly, and Pfeiffer’s darkly funny and brittle socialite is the nucleus the entire action swirls around.

Rich NYC widow Frances Price (Pfeiffer, mother!) has almost run out of money after not doing much of anything since her grossly affluent husband (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) died twelve years prior.  Never bothering to work or pass along a sense of wealth management to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back), mother and child find themselves in a bind when told they have a limited amount of funds to work with.  Neither has any particular talent or skill so their options are limited if they want to stay in their tony Manhattan digs.  Deciding its better to leave on top and wanting more time to figure out a plan, Frances sells almost everything they own and cashes out their accounts before anyone can come to collect on the bills that have been piling up.

Traveling by sea with a pile of dough and avoiding unnecessary customs questions in the process, the duo (along with Small Frank, their unique cat) travel to Paris.  On the way over, Malcolm has an intimate encounter with a kooky medium (a very fine Danielle Macdonald, I Am Woman, continuing a trend of being an MVP in a cast of strong supporting players) that can spot death, which tends to get her into trouble on a cruise made up of largely elderly passengers.  After arriving in Paris and ensconcing themselves in the flat of an old friend of Frances, there isn’t much to do but sit and wait for what comes next.  But what comes next?

That’s where French Exit gets its foot stuck in the door and never manages to wedge itself out.  DeWitt’s novel is a surreal bit of frivolity that involves a surprise twist I won’t reveal here but when it’s uncovered it moves the film from deadpan humor to a new level of cosmic comedy that not everyone is going to be able to roll with.

Perhaps they’ll find some diversion in Valerie Mahaffey’s (Sully) side-splitting turn as a zany widow desperate for friends who lures Frances and Malcom to a Christmas party under false pretenses.  Mahaffrey is a veteran character actress that’s as underrated as they come and it’s a shame the film didn’t heat up for Pfeiffer because I’d expect if it had then Mahaffrey would also have gotten recognized for her scene-stealing work.  Had the film only added Mahaffrey’s character to the mix it may have remained in a comfortably droll zone that reveled in its quirky charm but instead it continues to add multiple characters, few of whom are actually interesting or integral to the central figures of the plot.  Besides Hedges, on his second crazy cruise movie of 2020 after Let Them All Talk, who is unusually uncomfortable looking, the remaining cast (including Green Room’s Imogen Poots) feels like they are always annoyingly elbowing to get at a spot at the table next to the star of the film.

It all comes down to Pfeiffer, though, and director Azazel Jacobs capably brings out a wicked twinkle we haven’t seen in quite some time.  Reveling in reciting DeWitt’s biting dialogue and rolling her eyes whenever Mahaffrey’s character is trying to ingratiate herself to Frances, Pfeiffer has spoken about her affinity for this project, and it shows.  While it didn’t propel her to the finish line for any statuettes when the year was wrapped, it garnered her some of the best notices she’s received in a number of years.  There’s a reason Pfeiffer has had a lasting career in Hollywood and French Exit is a solid reminder of why she continues to surprise us.

Movie Review ~ I Am Woman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: This uplifting biopic tells the story of Helen Reddy, the fiercely ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit anthem that became the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement.

Stars: Tilda Cobham-Harvey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Chris Parnell, Matty Cardarople, Rita Rani Ahuja, Molly Broadstack

Director: Unjoo Moon

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than jumping on a bandwagon so I’m fairly surprised that after the unexpected success of the extremely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 and the emotional satisfaction derived from the superior Elton John biopic Rocketman in 2019 there haven’t been an influx of similar musical biographies.  Before those films arrived, previous efforts at presenting the life stories of legends of the music industry had been spotty and only a select few managed to break past a paint-by-the-numbers approach to a life-story.  What about that long in the planning Dolly Parton film about her journey from the Smokey Mountains to finding fame in Nashville and the film industry?  Then there were the multiple projects at one time in the works set to cover the life of Janis Joplin that couldn’t get off the ground.  Surely, audience reaction to a Queen musical would fuel some further interest in those properties…right?

It’s interesting, then, that the first real film to be released that charts the ascent of a star singer doesn’t even come from Hollywood at all.  Arriving from Down Under, I Am Woman centers on Australian soft-rock vocalist Helen Reddy and how the single mother packed up her daughter and left their life in Melbourne with dreams and determination to make it as a recording artist.  At a time when her style of music wasn’t considered fashionable by executives that didn’t truly know what their market audience was looking for, Reddy hit a nerve in the industry with her #1 song that became the ever-present theme for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1960s, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) thinks she’s secured a recording contract after winning a contest back in Australia, only to learn from an oily recording executive that there’s no place for her kind of singing on their roster.  The music of The Beatles was popular and women didn’t sell records, besides, this record company already had their request solo female artist signed so…they couldn’t take on another one.  Reaching out to another NY transplant from her hometown for advice, rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, Paradise Hills), Helen begins singing at low-paying nightclub.

Up until this point, director Unjoo Moon keeps the film coloring inside the lines almost to a fault.  The script from Emma Jensen is jammed with eye-rolling dialogue that intends to tell you the true nature of everyone’s character from their first spoken line.  Helen’s meeting with the music exec is misogynistic to the point of parody as is an exchange between her and the club owner trying to stiff her on her pay.  Everything just feels so stodgy that you want things to loosen up just a tad, I mean, this was the 60s after all.  The relationship between Helen and Lillian proves for interesting interplay between two women that were capable of more than what people expected of them but it’s clear Lillian will be a sideline character quickly after Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) enters the picture and sweeps Helen off her feet.

A William Morris agent, at first Wald sends off all the traditional warning bells of an Ike Turner in the making but curiously manages to not follow the path you think he’ll tread.  Though initially challenged by Helen’s tenacity he appears to be someone that doesn’t just love Helen but actually believes in her too…though it takes a while (and a cross-country move) for him to make good on his promise to get her foot in the door with his music connections.  When she finally arrives, buoyed on the success of a hit cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him and then the blockbuster phenomenon of I Am Woman, her fame comes with the usual gains and losses.  The marriage to Wald is put to the test because of his drug and gambling addiction and her personal relationships with her friends and children are strained when she’s forced into choosing between her life as a performer and her offstage persona.

Objectively speaking, I Am Woman is fairly standard stuff and is akin to a rock skipping across the surface of a very wide and deep lake.  There’s a lot more to the story of Helen Reddy and a much deeper emotional well to mine, that’s for certain, but what’s presented onscreen feels respectful and ultimately an agreeable watch.  It helps immensely that Cobham-Harvey is positively electric as Helen, ably navigating the insecurities hiding behind perceived strength and wrestling with her own feelings of liberation while in a unique situation of her own where she feels at odds with the strong woman she sings about nightly.  Sadly, I was disappointed that she doesn’t do her own singing (Reddy’s vocals are either from her own recordings or recreated by Chelsea Cullen) and at times it shows that she’s just mouthing the words but overall she has Reddy’s mannerisms down.  I liked Peters as well, though his performance begins to slide into a series of sniffs and ticks as Wald’s addictions to drugs intensifies.

In addition to having a near ace-in-the-hole with its leading lady, I Am Woman also boasts cinematography from Memoirs of a Geisha Oscar-winner Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns).  Married to the director, BeeBe gives the film a radiant vibe and the faithfully recreated period production design from Michael Turner (The Great Gatsby) is overall exceptional, same goes for Emily Seresin’s (The Invisible Man) appropriately groovy costumes.  Hearing some of Reddy’s songs is quite nice, especially since Moon lets at least three of them play full out (including I Am Woman twice) but there’s little mention of Reddy’s work outside of the music world, including her film or stage work.  As one of Australia’s most respected performers, it’s right that the still living Reddy should get such a luxe film but I only wish the movie on the whole were quite as detailed as the sets and costumes that surround its star.

31 Days to Scare ~ Paradise Hills

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.

Stars: Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine

Director: Alice Waddington

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives was first published, in 1972 it came at a time when the women’s liberation movement was starting to gain greater momentum on a national level and the book served as a good reminder that conformity could be downright dangerous.  Adapted as a chilling movie in 1975, the term “Stepford Wife” became a term used to describe a woman who appeared submissive to her spouse – not the nicest of terms.  A 2004 remake tried hard to update the social satire for a different generation in the new millennium but studio tinkering and behind-the-scenes turmoil turned the film into a sour mess.

There’s a whiff of Stepford hanging over the new release Paradise Hills but don’t go looking for extreme similarities between the two because this is better than just another reimagining of that original text.  Written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw working from a story by director Alice Waddington, it takes some ideas from Levin but largely cuts its own path in creating a creative narrative.  Waddington, a Spanish artist making her feature directing debut, contributes a highly visual film that doesn’t compensate flair for plot.  It’s artsty-fartsy but still takes time to connect the dots.

Kicking things off with a glam wedding designed to the hilt, Waddington takes some inspiration from Tarsem (The Cell) in her camera movements and attention to details in the foreground and background.  It’s nuptials day for Uma (Emma Roberts, We’re the Millers) and while she smiles, greets her guests and sings a song for her new husband, something doesn’t seem quite right.  Later that evening we’ll find out why but not before flashing back several months to Uma arriving at Paradise, an isolated island she’s been sent to for refusing to marry the man her parents set her up with.  Independent and single-minded, she loves another (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and wants to live free from the constraints of her family and societal norms.

Ruled by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), Paradise is a tranquil finishing (more like re-finishing) school wealthy families can send their daughters to if they are in need of a little attitude adjustment.  Maybe they need to lose weight like Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, The East), perhaps they struggle with anxiety disorder like Yu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) or, in the case of famous pop singer Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), they could just need a break from mainstream culture.  At first, the courses administered are designed to change their outward appearance but things take a darker turn when the inward feelings are targeted.

As the girls get closer they begin to see the island and its presiding Duchess have a devious plan for them all, one that’s been hidden in the depths of the labyrinthine estate they live in.  When girls start disappearing and the Duchess begins to demonstrate some rather strange behavior that seems to have a direct impact on the island’s flora, Uma leads her new friends in a plan to escape before their nightmare stay in Paradise becomes permanent.  Unable to stay awake through the night to explore what is being kept from them, Uma and Amarna team up to find a way to outwit the authority figures and get to the bottom of what seems to be coming for them.

While not as outright a horror film as I could see it tiptoeing around at times wanting to be, enough of the action is steeped in mystery that you can’t help but feel its occasional electric charge when it uncovers another clue.  The solution is fairly obvious but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect.  The performances are strong throughout, with Roberts continuing to hone her skills and improving with each role she takes on.  I especially liked Jovovich playing a quasi-fairy tale queen with a sinister edge.  If this had been made ten years ago, I could easily have seen Jovovich in the Roberts role.  Though hampered by some limitations in budget and issues with follow-through of the intriguing ideas it introduces, it succeeds more than I anticipated it would.